Why Israel’s annexation plans matter to Labour

By Hugh Lanning, Labour & Palestine.

With the new government in Israel threatening further annexation of occupied Palestinian land, a broad range of parliamentarians, trade unions and cultural figures have signed a statement launched today in support of the global call from Palestine for effective measures to stop the annexation.

The general secretaries of nine trade unions including Len McCluskey and Mick Whelan, cultural figures including Philip Pullman and Maxine Peake, and 33 parliamentarians including Jeremy Corbyn, Andy Slaughter, Diane Abbott, Stephen Kinnock and Bell Ribeiro-Addy have all supported the call from Labour & Palestine, PSC and other organisations.

The new Israeli unity government of Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz is threatening to annex large swathes of the West Bank – including the Jordan valley – starting in July. This is a time for Labour and the UK government to be vociferous and pro-active in seeking to stop this from happening. Not just moaning after the event.

Annexation sounds like something anodyne, administrative, neutral rather than dangerous. But correctly described by leaders of the Arab List – on demonstrations in Tel Aviv – as a ‘war crime’, annexation is illegal under international law. Annexation is the forcible and unilateral acquisition by one state – in this case Israel – of territory over which it has no recognised sovereignty.

The land under threat are those parts of the West Bank that were militarily occupied by Israel in 1967. This would be the culmination of years of appropriation of land through the forced displacement of Palestinians, settlement and the annexation of East Jerusalem in 1980. The annexation of East Jerusalem was globally condemned, but – in the end – tolerated.

Palestinian civil society has made a very clear call for all states across the world to take ‘effective measures’ to stop the annexation taking place. Since 1967, the territories Israel occupied have been primarily governed, through the military commander, by military law and Palestinians have had some protection under international law under the laws of occupation. These are designed to protect the civilian population during a military occupation that is presumed to be temporary.

Although all the land from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River has been under Israel’s control and domination since it was occupied, it has not directly come under the laws of Israel and the Knesset. Through settlements, the wall and other laws, such as giving Israeli citizenship to settlers, Israel has sought to blur the lines, but the distinction between Israel and the land it occupies has been broadly maintained in law. This distinction was the basis of the Oslo accords.

Although annexation was always on the agenda for the more fundamental Zionists within Israel, Netanyahu has mainstreamed it as part of his determination to cling to office. This has been egged on by Donald Trump, who has put forward a plan – the ‘deal of the century‘ – drawn up by his nephew.

This plan and Trump’s actions have been a dream come true for the hardliners in the Knesset, which has a majority publicly supporting annexation. But time is critical – to do it before the US Presidential elections, in case he is not re-elected. But also, for a Netanyahu concerned about his legacy, to start it whilst he is still Prime Minister and before his trial concludes. For Trump, it is a further appeasement to his Christian Evangelical base who support a greater Israel – albeit for different reasons, predominantly driven by antisemitic sentiments.

The core and fundamental purpose underlying annexation is that it permanently puts the ‘nail in the coffin’ of a two-state solution. It leaves no room for any conceivable viable Palestinian state. It is critical to understanding the motives behind Israel’s actions to recognise that it has no interest in and does not want to see the creation of an independent state of Palestine. It wants to retain total control of all the land between the sea and the Jordan river, and this is granted under the Trump plan.

Its problem is that there are broadly seven million Jews and seven million Arabs in this land mass, so Israel does not want to sequester all of the occupied territories and all its people. It wants to take as much land as possible, with as few Palestinians as possible – to quote Netanyahu, “not a single Palestinian”.

In its very essence, the annexation proposed by Israel is discriminatory. It picks and chooses who it wants, excluding those who are not Jewish. It grants rights, privileges and status to some whilst denying and excluding others. This view was iterated in a letter to Israel’s ambassador in the UK, Mark Regev, by a group of prominent British Jews, who wrote: “It would have grave consequences for the Palestinian people most obviously. Israel’s international standing would also suffer, and it is incompatible with the notion of Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state.”

Palestinians in East Jerusalem were not granted citizenship when it was annexed, just the status of residents – made to pay taxes, but not eligible to vote. It is not clear, as yet, what status would be granted to any Palestinians, if there are any, within the annexed territory or to those remaining in the occupied territories. Israel, far from being a democratic state, becomes even more entrenched as what Israeli human rights organisation Breaking the Silence describes as ‘One State, One Discriminatory Regime’.

The racial discrimination will not be limited just to the fundamental legal and political rights, but will permeate every aspect of Palestinian life. In an excellent briefing, another human rights group, Yesh Din Volunteers for Human Rights, set out some of the other major consequences of annexation.

They detail the impact in two major areas: freedom of movement and property rights. Under Israeli law, residents of the West Bank have no right of entry to Israel. They need a permit and to go through border controls. Annexation would make whole new areas ‘no go’ zones for Palestinians and would require the establishment of permanent barriers and border controls. In addition to the settler road system that they are currently excluded from, this would cut across and block many of the remaining roads.

As has been seen in East Jerusalem and elsewhere, once under Israeli law, the way would be open for the expropriation of Palestinian land and houses by the state – because they, the Palestinian owners and residents, were no longer present. It would deny access to agricultural land, facilitate the growth of settlement-building and the continuation of ethnic cleansing through expulsion and house demolitions. It would entrench the already disproportionate control of natural resources, such as water, oil and minerals.

Palestinian civil society has made a global call for ‘effective measures’ to be taken to stop this annexation. If the measures are to be effective, this means the UK should now, at the very least, be adhering to an ethical policy on all the UK’s trade with Israel, in particular by applying international law on settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories and stopping any arms trade with Israel that is used in violation of the human rights of Palestinians.

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, a number of organisations are cooperating to try to respond to the call from Palestine by making Annexation a live issue on the current political agenda. Israel’s timetable is to annex land quickly with Trump’s support. This means we cannot wait.

Stopping annexation must be part of Labour’s foreign policy agenda. Most crucially, at some point Labour needs to recognise there must be consequences for Israel’s continual breaches of international law. Surely annexation is that tipping point. The Palestinian call for effective measures is reasonable. This time we cannot stand idly by.